The Record Company: High Time
photo credit: Kim Zsebe
Everyone has a moment or two in their lives when one little decision quietly sets off a life changing series of events. Chris Vos, lead singer and guitarist of The Record Company, had one such experience back in 2010, shortly after he moved to Los Angeles from his home state of Wisconsin. He posted an ad in the musicians section of Craigslist, just looking for some new people to play music with. Alex Stiff, a bassist and multi-instrumentalist, answered his call.
“I invited Chris and his wife over to listen to records and have some beers,” Stiff says of that defining moment. Shortly after, he introduced Vos to drummer Marc Cazorla, an old friend and bandmate from his college days at Bucknell; they were in a band together called The Frequency and were trying to make it. But it never really took off, despite their best efforts. And, in the fall of 2011, the three musicians started to play together as The Record Company, finding common ground in their musical heroes: The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, Muddy Waters, Elvis.
They started slowly—writing and recording together, developing a raw blues sound that was simple in its presentation. From the start, they went old-school, drawing inspiration from Hooker ‘N Heat, the 1971 album that John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat recorded together. There wasn’t an overarching game plan; they just wanted to lay some ideas down and, when they were done with those tracks, maybe record some more.
The trio set up a small studio in the bassist’s living room, simply because it was there.
“It’s basically what we had,” Stiff says. “One day, we had the vision to hang mics from the ceiling, hit record and just see what happens.”
Expectations were low at first, but Stiff spent some time cold-emailing some tracks out and, much to their surprise, a song got some pickup at radio stations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. That early success provided the nascent group with a shot of confidence and enough encouragement to stick with their living room setup.
Eventually, they had enough material to finalize a full-length release and reached out to Concord Records. (Cazorla had worked with the label over the years and still had connections there.) They sent over the tunes that would make up their first album, Give It Back to You and, to their surprise, Concord came back with minimal notes. Months later, Give It Back to You was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. Lead single “Off the Ground” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart, and they even nabbed an opening slot on John Mayer’s arena tour in 2017.
“The sense that we were meant to find each other was very obvious to me. I was chasing after those guys to play, and they were reaching the end of their dream,” Vos says. “They were both maybe ready to move on. When I found them, all our dreams came back to life. It seemed possible to play music that was exciting.”
Ten years later, the band feels like they’re at another crossroads. They want to evolve and get outside of the livingroom mentality that drove their first two albums, as great and as successful as they were. But past experience dictates that’s often easier said than done.
Chris Vos became obsessed with music when he first laid eyes on a guitar in sixth grade. “It was a sunburst Stratocaster. It was the first time that I got to hold a guitar. This kid sat down and played some chords—and it blew my mind. There was nothing else that I wanted to do with my life and I knew that instantaneously.”
Music quickly became his life, a complete 180 from the farming community he was surrounded by. Stiff and Cazorla had similar moments of clarity in their formative years. Stiff recalls learning to play piano by ear by eavesdropping on his sister’s piano lessons. The drummer points to the Northeast ‘90s jam scene, where it was easy to travel to see shows on the weekends, as well as a healthy fixation with metal.
All of this is to say that The Record Company, at their core, are music obsessives who think about how the past is intertwined with everything they are doing now. Blues music still played a big part in that thinking, but for their third LP, Play Loud, they consciously decided to leave their comfort zone (and that living room) and do what bands who want to challenge themselves typically need to do.
After meeting with a few different producers, they decided on David Sardy, who is known for his work with LCD Soundsystem, Modest Mouse, Oasis and Gorillaz.
“Opening ourselves up to collaboration was a huge thing,” Stiff says. “I had produced the first two records and I wanted to learn from someone with a lot of experience, but I also wanted to see where someone could take us. Dave has this house in Beachwood Canyon with all the gear in the world. We didn’t know what was going to happen with this, but it was going to be unexpected and not just a polished version of what we normally do. The songs sound more produced on this record, but they’re still dirty and weird and crunchy in places.”
That openness to outside ideas also helped with what Cazorla describes as a desire to get away from redundancy. “It was a tacit understanding after the first two records that we wanted to do something different. We knew our moves,” Cazorla says. “It was nervewracking at first. But going in with new people gave us free rein to be ourselves again.”
“There’s always challenges in writing a record,” Vos says. “We’re very picky about what’s going to be on an album. It’s one of those things where you have to stand behind every single note. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want to stand behind everything proudly. Then it’s always a struggle. And it should be. There are songs that just happen—but I always find that you can actually will a song to become better. You can improve your melodies, your lyrics, everything until the moment you record it. And if it’s right, you know it. The challenge is always to expand, and the third record is a good time for a band to explore.”
From Play Loud’s first notes, it’s quite evident that something has changed. The raw, bluesy feel that lined The Record Company’s first two albums is no longer there; instead, there’s a rockand-roll swagger that shines through. It’s energetic in ways that feel more apt for arenas instead of the home-studio recordings that often looked inward. On the album’s opener “Never Leave You,” Vos laments being a bit lost, searching for answers, finding solace in the sun. It’s a simple song about relationship confusion, but it sets the tone for Play Loud: The music here is catchy as hell. The single “How High” is an anthemic number, driven by Stiff and Cazorla’s thumping rhythms. At times, it feels like a pure adrenaline rush, especially when the chorus asks listeners to consider “how high do you want to fly”—in an aspirational way.
That’s not to say that their past is completely devoid on Play Loud. “Today Forever” is a slow, bluesy number that finds Vos passionately declaring to a lover that a great move would be to run away for “a day that will last forever.” It’s grand gesture thinking, but that’s the running thread throughout Play Loud—be yourself, take a chance, do it with some gusto.
Most of the songs were written pre-pandemic, but the Play Loud recording sessions took place in the spring of 2020. Unexpectedly, the lyrics seem to take on a new life once they started laying down the tracks, particularly “How High,” which seems to touch on themes relating to recovery.
“We were in a new, challenging time,” Vos says. “But at my core, as a human, I was back to being a 14-year-old kid sitting on the edge of my bed, playing guitar because I had nothing else to do today. The only thing on my mind was music. It was the only thing that would make me feel better, making the record. It became the absolute focal point of our lives. That was unexpectedly positive in a field of a lot of negativity. That was one area where we did benefit from being isolated. These songs for me were very emotionally profound. We’d written a lot before [the pandemic] but, all of a sudden, you’re taking it into the studio, and you’re singing this song—and this life, it means something different. We all have a relatable struggle. We all didn’t see our moms and dads for a long time. We all didn’t see our friends for a long time. That’s something we all share.”
Speaking of unintended intentions, “How High” got a rather massive comingout party this fall: It was featured during the first NFL game of the season’s halftime show, while 22 million viewers tuned in to see Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys.
“You can’t deny that that felt awesome,” Cazorla admits. “It’s fun when those things happen.”
Moments like this weren’t in the cards when Stiff answered Vos’ Craigslist ad years ago. And the band is careful not to get too caught up in the success they are currently experiencing.
“We’ve all had our failed bands and we try to learn from those mistakes,” Stiff says.
Cazorla adds: “We were right at the end but, ultimately, if you can’t get 30 people to a show in your hometown, you have to reflect inward. We’re very cautious this time around. If the good stuff started happening early, we were like, ‘Don’t get excited.’ We all know how this one ends—just absorb it and don’t think you’ve arrived anywhere. There’s still a zillion miles to go.”
It’s this clarity that has The Record Company and Play Loud at a crossroads moment of their careers, where it’s not really about survival. It’s about keeping grounded in the present, something that can come easier if you’ve seen dreams fade before.
“I think it’s human nature to have goals, especially in a band,” Vos says. “But the biggest thing we speak of a lot is the present—being really focused at the moment at hand. In the bottom of the ninth in the World Series, there’s the person who hits the baseball and the person who doesn’t hit the baseball. There’s a mental side to that: It’s highly likely you will hit the ball if you are only thinking of the ball and nothing else. That’s how you lay a vocal part; that’s how you play a good guitar solo. That’s why John Coltrane records will rip your head off—because he was in it, one second at a time, one note at a time. We do talk about the future, but the best thing we can do to give ourselves a good future is to really stay connected to the here-and-now— and to each other now. It is important to understand each other as friends and as musicians and to really hone in on that. Music adds something to a given moment of your life and puts something in your soul.”